One magic ingredient for every hard conversation
Better conversations look like this.
Most of us treat conversations — especially gross and icky ones — like a ping pong match. Sally shares what she thinks. Bob then shares what he thinks. Sally then shares what she thinks about what Bob thinks. And so on and so forth.
Back and forth it goes.
In my previous post on effective empathy, I highlighted the idea that we are all on the top of our own “ladders of inference.”
“We all inhabit the same world. But out of all possible data in this world, we only can access a limited pool of available data. Out of this pool, we as humans select certain data to pay attention to, consciously or not. We then apply background assumptions to interpret this data, finally leading us to draw conclusions and solidify our perspectives.”
In that post, I mentioned two things to do with that ladder:
- Make sure we’re understanding the other person’s ladder as well as they understand it. Asking questions, creating safety, avoiding assumptions, yadda yadda yadda.
- Demonstrate what your understanding is to the other person.
The second piece is so important, but so often missing, that I’ll say it again:
You must demonstrate that you understand what the other person is saying.
If you don’t, they won’t believe that you’re hearing what they’re saying.
And when people don’t feel heard, they don’t feel ready to listen.
- They think that you misunderstand their point. (“If only that Sally would listen, she would agree with me!”)
- They think you’re stupid. (“That Sally just can’t get it through her thick skull, can she!”)
- They think you’re a horrible listener. (“What’s wrong with her?”)
So then they want to keep explaining themselves instead of listening to you.
And you’ll be stuck playing the same ping pong game over and over and over again …
How do we get out of it?
To stop the ping pong game, do one thing: REFLECT what the other person is saying.
And here’s how.
Make things not awkward by naming what you’re doing
- “Just to make sure I understand, I want to paraphrase briefly what you said.”
- “Before you go on, I want to just check to make sure I’ve understood what you’re saying.”
- “Do you mind if I just double-check to make sure I heard you correctly?”
Reflect their observations
Stick with what they’re experiencing. A good rule of thumb is to start with the five senses. (That’s how you know it’s data.)
- “You saw …”
- “You noticed …”
- “You observed …”
- “You heard …”
- “You remember …”
Don’t make generalizations — hone in on particular examples.
If they didn’t provide particulars for you to reflect, ask them for more details about a particular instances.
Reflect their interpretations
Name background beliefs before reflecting the interpretation.
- “Because of your experience with …, you interpreted that observation to mean …”
- “Since you’ve been thinking about …, you saw his doing X as meaning that …”
- “To you, that meant that … because …”
Reflect their conclusions
You don’t have to agree with their conclusion — in fact, if your goal is to reflect, don’t agree even if you do!
- “From what you could tell, you concluded that …”
- “Based on what you could see, you thought that …”
- “With that in mind, you were concerned …”
Double-check you got it right
- “Did I get that right?”
- “Was there anything missing in my understanding of what you said?”
If they add anything to their account of the ladder, paraphrase it again and again and again until you get it right.
Ask for missing pieces of the ladder
If you try to paraphrase their ladder but you don’t realize what observations grounded their interpretation, or don’t understand how they got to a particular conclusion … ask for it!
- “Actually, I didn’t quite understand how you got from the observation that X to the conclusion that Y.”
- “There was a piece in there about X that I didn’t quite understand. Could you elaborate?”
Only move on when you’re sure you got it…
You’ll hear something like this from them:
- “I’m glad you understand what I was saying.”
- “Yeah. That’s pretty much it. You got it.”
You will not regret it
This is truly the missing ingredient in so many conversations that I’ve helped facilitate. And when someone takes the time to reflect (usually when I make them do it), the conversation opens up to a much better place.
Give it a swing and let me know how it goes!
Seanan Fong is the founder of Cylinder Project, where he helps startups and teams turn disagreements and grievances into insights and learning. His practice combines expertise in conflict resolution with a background focusing on tech startups. He is based in the Bay Area — contact him here.
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